A New Look at Tongues

A Linguistic Approach to the "Other Tongues" in Acts 2

Robert Zerhusen

To dig deeper into this whole subject, you can order Zerhusen's three lecture series, "A New Look At Tongues" (available on cassette in the Alliance on-line resource catalog here on this website). In these three tapes, Zerhusen presents his thesis of the meaning of tongues in the Book of Acts, as well as in 1 Corinthians. The final lecture is a presentation of the history and practice of tongues throughout church history. The essay presented here was first published in Biblical Theology Bulletin (1996) and is used by the permission of the author.

This article seeks to demonstrate that a socio-linguistic approach to the understanding of the "other tongues" of Acts 2 is more helpful than previously suggested approaches. The arricle proceeds in two patrs: after problems with existing interpretations are pointed out, an alternative is presented, which focuses on the function of the Hebrew language in first-century Judean culture.

The Language Miracle Interpretation

The interpretation of Acts 2 most widely held throughout Christian history is the language miracle interpretation. According to this scenario, when the disciples used "other tongues" they were supernaturally speaking languages they had never learned. Proponents of this view assume (1) that the crowd of Acts 2 spoke many different native languages and (2) that the disciples were unable to speak these native languages (thus requiring a language miracle).

The narrative ofActs 2:1-13 makes no reference to any specific languages. The Acts 2:9-11 listing is of people-groups and geographical areas, not individual languages. In spite of this absence of reference to any particular language, some have conjectured that a dozen or more languages were spoken by the disciples. Stanley H. Horton claimed: "Some suppose that only the 12 apostles were filled [with the Spirit] (32). However, more than 12 languages were spoken." Carl F H. Henry similarly wrote: "The sixteen or seventeen, perhaps more, Pentecost tongues were not ecstatic utterances but recognizable human languages" (377).

Neither Horton nor Henry arrived at these numbers by exegesis of the text. Nor did they derive these numbers from historical investigation (neither writer provided any historical evidence for these claims, and neither writer specified what languages were spoken). Apparently, both writers assumed that each item on the list represented a separate language. They then totaled up the people-groups and areas listed in Acts 2:9-11 (there are 15), concluding that there were 15 or more languages.

A careful examination of the list shows that 15 languages are not represented. "Visitors from Rome, both Judeans and proselytes (2:11) does not refer to people who spoke "Roman" (Judeans and proselytes from Rome most likely spoke Greek as their native tongue, possibly Latin). The term proselytes in Acts 2:11 probably refers to the Roman contingent rather than the entire 2:9-11 list for the following reasons: (1) the Acts 2:9-11 list is not yet complete when the phrase occurs--the reference occurs within the list, not at the end; (2) since in the first century a great amount of Judean proselytizing was taking place in Rome, it makes sense for Luke to note this; (3) Luke's narrative was moving towards Rome, and so it is appropriate for him to emphasize the city of Rome; (4) as can be seen from an examination of Romans, the church at Rome was very mixed (Judeans and Gentiles are directly addressed).

Judeans who had come from "the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene" did not speak "Libyan" or "Cyrenian" (Crene was a Greek colony where the Judeans' native tongue was Greek). Judeans who were "residents of Mesopotamia" spoke, not "Mesopotamian," but Aramaic as their native tongue. Because both Horton and Henry believe that the Acts 2 narrative describes a language miracle, they assume that the Diaspora Judeans spoke dozens of native languages, which the disciples did not know.

For intelligible communication to take place between the speakers and hearers in Acts 2, were dozens of languages necessary?. The apostle Peter spoke in one language (Acts 2:14ff), and all of the crowd apparently understood him without difficulty. Frank W Beare notes that "[t]aken literally, there was no need for so many languages; and Jews born abroad would not normally be taught the language of Elamites (if it still was spoken anywhere) or of Persians or Libyans and so forth. They would speak a dialect of Aramaic, or the common Greek, or perhaps both" (237). Ernst Haenchen quotes W L. Knox: "In reality it is most unlikely that any Jew of the Dispersion would have understood such native dialects as survived in the remoter regions of the Middle East, since the Jews of the dispersion were almost entirely city dwellers" (169). He then adds: "The Jews in the regions enumerated [the Acts 2:9-11 list] did in fact speak either Aramaic or Greek."

Some would suggest that Luke's purpose in providing the Acts 2:9-11 list is to emphasize linguistic diversity. This would be true if the Acts 2 narrative described a language miracle and if in fact the Judeans in the regions enumerated spoke multiple native languages besides Aramaic and Greek. But if Haenchen is correct and the Judeans of the first century spoke Aramaic and Greek as their native tongues, then there would be no linguistic diversity to emphasize. All of the areas listed were areas in which there was a concentration of Judeans. Although some areas are missing (e.g., Syria and Cyprus), perhaps the list is meant to be representative of "all Israel." If this is true, then Luke's purpose in presenting the list is not to emphasize linguistic diversity, but to suggest that the first apostolic testimony was to the Jewish nation.

Robert H. Gundry, a language miracle advocate, admits that Aramaic and Greek would have been sufficient for communication to have taken place between the disciples and their hearers:

Neither at Corinth nor on the Day of Pentecost is speaking in tongues presented as the overcoming of a communications barrier. Everyone spoke at least Greek at Corinth. At Pentecost the disciples and the Diaspora Jews and proselytes could have communicated in Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, all three of which we now know were regularly used in frst century Palestine. The New Testament presents glossalalia primarily as a convincing miracle, only secondarily as the communication of a message; for communication alone could be accomplished more easily without "other tongues" (301-302).

Proponents of the language miracle view interpret the phrase "other tongues" to mean "other than what they normally spoke." Most would acknowledge that the disciples' ordinary languages were Greek and Aramaic. John B. PoIhill is representative when he writes: "The miracle was a demonstration of the Spirit's power and presence: these Diaspora Jews heard their own tongue spoken (not Aramaic or Greek) and realized that this should have been impossible for 'Galileans'" (101). According to the logic of the language miracle view the "other tongues" were languages other than Aramaic and Greek, the ordinary languages of the disciples. For the language miracle view the contrast is:

"Other Tongues"
Normal languages of speakers
Languages other than
the normal languages of the speakers
(i.e., languages other than Aramaic/Greek)

But where are these native languages--other than Aramaic and Greek--to be found among first century Judeans? Simon J. Kistemaker says:

We presume that the God-fearing Jews were at least bilingual, if not trilingual. Living in Jerusalem, they conversed in Aramaic. And if they had come from the Roman Empire west and north of Israel, they would know Greek. But they also learned the languages of their native countries....When the alien residents of Jerusalem hear the languages they learned in the country where they were born and reared, they are utterly amazed [80-81].

I. H. Marshall echoes Kistemaker: "Although the audience was Jewish, the various groups of the Diaspora would still have had their own languages and the declaration of the gospel would have come to them more significantly in their own tongues" (361).

Both Kistemaker and Marshall (advocates of the language miracle view) are well aware that Greek and Aramaic were in widespread use among the Judeans in the first century. The logic of their theory, however dictates that the "other tongues" could not have been Aramaic or Greek. If a language miracle occurred, then by definition the speakers were speaking languages they had never learned, languages other than their ordinary languages. If the ordinary languages of the speakers (i.e., the disciples of Jesus in Acts 2) were Aramaic and Greek, and if the speakers were uttering languages they had never learned before (i.e., a linguistic miracle was occurring), then the speakers could not have been speaking in their ordinary languages (i.e., Aramaic and Greek).

Therefore, languages other than Aramaic and Greek must be found to serve as the "other tongues." They posit "local languages," indigenous languages other than Aramaic or Greek, languages the Diaspora may have spoken, yet languages unfamiliar to the disciples:

"Other Tongues"
Normal languages of speakers
"Local languages of the Diaspora: languages the disciples did not know"

While it is true that local languages other than Aramaic and Greek existed in the first century, the text of Acts 2 presents the "other tongues" as the native languages of the Judean crowd assembled in Acts 2. Advocates of the language miracle view must prove that the "Diaspora Judeans spoke these Iocal languages as their native languages rather than Aramaic and Greek."

The Composition of the Crowd
The crowd of Acts 2 may be divided into two groups: Palestinian Judeans. resident in the land of Israel; and Diaspora Judeans. who resided in areas outside of Israel. Proponents of the Language miracle view regularly assume, basing their conclusion on the Acts 2:9-11 list (14 of 15 items on the list refer to Diaspora areas) that the majority of the Judeans present in Acts 2 were Diaspora Judeans.

Regarding these two groups, Joachim Jeremias recognized that most of the Judeans present in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost would have been Palestinian. "The greatest number of visitors to Jerusalem have always come from within Palestine" (71). S. Safrai arrives at the same conclusion: "On each of the three festivals many tens of thousands went up from the land of Israel and the Diaspora. Most, of course. came from the Land of Israel, on whose inhabitants the precept was regarded as chiefly binding. Of these, moreover, the majority came from nearby Judea and Idumea" 1975: (326-27). In another place Safrai wrote: "of course the greatest number of pilgrims were from Palestine. Of these the largest number came from nearby Judea and Edom. The sundry testimonies and traditions which tell of whole cities going, refer primarily to Judea" (1976: 900).

Scholars (especially language miracle advocates) have sometimes been troubled by the presence of Judea in the Acts 2:9-11 list. If Jeremias and Safrai are correct, however, Judea represents not only a legitimate part of the crowd, but the largest portion of the crowd. Common sense should confirm this fact. If an international convention of theologians was held in the city of Los Angeles, even today most of the participants would come from nearby areas. More participants would come from California than from the Orient, Europe, South America, etc. People who live closest to the meeting place have the easiest access to the event. In the fitst century, when the Judeans gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, most of those present would have been Palestinian.

If this observation, regularly overlooked in the discussion of Acts 2, is valid, then both the speakers of the "other tongues" and most of their hearers would have been Palestinian Judeans. The narrative of Acts 2 contains clear references to the presence of Palestinians in the crowd: "People ofJudea" (2:14); "People of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested TO YOU by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God pefformed through Him IN YOUR MIDST, JUST AS YOU YOURSELVES KNOW" (2:22). Presumably, if they saw these things they must have been Palestinian.

The text suggests that the speakers of the "other tongues" were speaking the native languages of the crowd (which primarily consisted of Palestinians). This means that the "other tongues" must have included Aramaic and Greek (the native languages of "Judea"/Palestine).

Native Languages of the Diaspora
Surprisingly, when we examine Diaspora Judean groups we find that most (if not all) of the Diaspora spoke either Aramaic or Greek as their native language. It is common among scholars to differentiate between the western and eastern Diaspora by their native languages. Elias J. Bickerman wrote:

Nevertheless the fact that the Law of Moses was universally valid from Cyrene to Ecbatana did not prevent a linguistic and cultural split between the two halves of ancient Jewry: the Jews in the Greek and graecised lands in Africa and Asia Minor and the Jews in the Aramaic world, which reached from Jerusalem to Babylon and Ecbatana [93].

Shaye J. D. Cohen notes the same linguistic split:

We have no reason to assume that any of the Egyptian interpretations of Judaism would necessarily have found favor in the other communities of Greek-speaking Jews throughout the Roman world (for example in Rome, Asia Minor, North Africa, and parts of the land of Israel)....We have no reason to assume that any of the Palestinian interpretations of Judaism would necessarily have found favor in the other communities of Hebrew or Aramaic-speaking Jews throughout the east (for example, in Babylonia and parts of Syria) [24-25].

These statements are representative of a scholarly consensus, which recognizes that the western and eastern Diaspora may be classified linguistically according to native language (i.e., the western Diaspora were Greek-speaking, the eastern Diaspora were Aramaic-speaking).

The western Diaspora resided in areas that had been thoroughly hellenized for centuries; hence their native language was Greek. J. N. Sevenster, after extensive work on the inscriptional evidence of first-century Judaism, describes the dominance of Greek among the western Diaspora:

For it is an established fact that, as a rule, the Jews outside Palestine spoke and wrote Greek and almost always thought in that language, particulary in the centuries around the beginning of the Christian era....The testimonials of the use of Greek among the Jews of the Diaspora are so clear and so numerous that one can only assume that by far the majority of the Diaspora Jews who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem or settled in the Jewish land spoke Greek [82].

If Sevenster's conclusion is valid, then the language these Hellenistic Judeans would have heard in Acts 2 is Greek.

Because of the dominance of Greek among the western Diaspora, there was a need for a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. The Septuagint, which became the standard text used in the synagogues of the western Diaspora, is evidence that Greek was the native language of these Judeans.

Knowing this, many scholars have argued that the "Hellenists" of Acts 6 were Judeans from the western Diaspora who spoke Greek as their native tongue. Kistemaker, writing about the "Hellenists" and "Hebrews" of Acts 6, says:

From the Pentecost account we learn that devout Jews had come from the dispersion to settle in Jerusalem (2:5-11)....Because they had formerly resided elsewhere, their native tongue was Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew (which was spoken by the Jews in Jerusajem)....However, each group had its own synagogue before these people became Christians, and when they became disciples the Greek-speaking and the Aramaic-speaking believers continued to have their own assemblies [220].

Clearly, Kistemaker is asserting that the native tongue of Hellenistic Judeans was Greek. Where did Hellenistic Judeans come from? The likely answer is areas west of Palestine--the same areas as Luke mentions in Acts 2: "Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans" (Acts 2:9-11).

Kistemaker is inconsistent. When discussing the "Hellenists" of Acts 6 (who had come from the western Diaspora), he unequivocally declares their native tongue to be Greek. When discussing the Hellenistic Judeans in Acts 2, however he says that, while they knew Greek, their native language was some "local language" other than Greek.

John MacArthur also misses the contradiction within the language miracle view. He proposes the language miracle view in Acts 2 and then, when discussing the "Hellenists" of Acts 6, states:

The Hellenistic Jews were those of the Diaspora. Unlike the native or Palestinian Hebrews, their native language was Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew. They used the Septuagint instead of the Hebrew Scriptures....Many of the Hellenists had been in Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost. After their conversion. they decided to remain there under the apostles' teaching [178].

Proponents of the language miracle view, when discussing the Acts 2 narrative, ignore or minimize the well established fact that the native language of Hellenists/western Diaspora Judeans was Greek. This cannot be ignored when a scholar such as Martin Hengel writes: "The pilgrims who came to the feasts in Jerusalem from the West [Hellenistic Judeans] brought their Greek mother tongue to Jerusalem" (115).

The situation of Diaspora Judeans in Egypt may serve as a useful illustration of what was typical of the western Diaspora. It is a well established fact that the Judeans in Egypt spoke Greek as their native tongue. Some of the Egyptians spoke Demotic Egyptian as their native tongue. Discussing the use of Demotic by the Egyptian Judeans, Hengel states, "True, we have few references to Jewish illiterates, but even these will have understood and spoken Greek. By contrast, Jews will hardly have been interested in Demotic Egyptian. We have no clear evidence that they ever learnt it" (1980: 115). The point is, even though Judeans residing in Egypt may have learned the "local language," Demotic Egyptian, in addition to Greek, the available evidence suggests that their native language was Greek. If a Judean from Egypt came to Jerusalem for Pentecost and heard his native tongue, he would have heard Greek spoken by a disciple. The text of Acts 2 requires that the Hellenistic Judeans were not merely hearing a "local language" from a country where they resided, but hearing their own native tongue (i.e., Greek for Hellenistic Judeans).

Although Greek was used in Palestine and had penetrated parts of the eastern Diaspora, the Aramaic language continued to dominate in the east. Jacob Neusner says of the use of Aramaic and Greek among the eastern Diaspora: "Most Jews...did not speak Greek but Aramaic (this is inferred from Josephus' writings, and from later literature), and in later periods produced literature in Hebrew and Aramaic" (10). F.F. Bruce, discussing the language situation of the eastern Diaspora listed in Acts 2:9-11, wrote: "Parthia, Media, Elam (Elymias) and Mesopotamia lay east of the Euphrates, the Jews in those areas spoke Aramaic. These were the lands of the earliest dispersion, to which exiles from the ten northern tribes of Israel had been deported by the Assyrians in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C." (55).

We may recall here (see 2 Kgs 18:19-28) that prior to the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests and exile of the Judeans, ordinary Judeans spoke Hebrew as their native tongue and were unfamiliar with Aramaic. This linguistic situation was completely reversed by the time the Judeans returned from their exile. When they returned to Palestine, Hebrew was no longer their native tongue, having been replaced by Aramaic. The most reasonable explanation for this linguistic shift is that the native language for the eastern Diaspora had become Aramaic.

While space does not permit full documentation here, we may conclude that as in Palestine, the "native languages" of the Diaspora Judeans were Aramaic and Greek. We have already seen that Aramaic and Greek would have been the native languages for most of the Acts 2 crowd (i.e., the Palestinian Judeans). When we combine this fact with the fact that the Diaspora also spoke Aramaic or Greek as their native tongues, we are forced to conclude that most (if not all) of the Judeans present in Acts 2, whether Palestinian or Diaspora, spoke Aramaic or Greek as their native tongue. In other words, the "other tongues" must have included Aramaic and Greek.

This creates an insurmountable problem for the language miracle view. The logic of the language miracle view must maintain that the "other tongues" were languages other than the normal languages of the speakers. Hence the "other tongues" had to be languages other than Aramaic and Greek. In reality, the native languages of the crowd (whether Palestinian or Diaspora) were Aramaic and Greek. Consider the contrast between what the logic of the language miracle view dictates and the language situation of first century Judaism:

Language Miracle View
First-century language situation of Judeans
"other tongues" could not have included Aramaic/Greek
"other tongues" had to include Aramaic/Greek

The Ecstatic Utterance Interpretation
In this view, the original event did not involve human languages. Instead, the disciples in a state of religious excitement engaged in "ecstatic utterances." According to William Furneaux, Acts 2 involves two different traditions:

We are driven to the conclusion at Pentecost, one earlier and historical, the other later and containing unhistorical elements....The earlier tradition is contained in verses 1-4, 12, 13, and the phenomena is then identified with that described by St. Paul. The later tradition is contained in verses 5-11, which state that foreign languages were spoken [28-29].

Most scholars who hold this view believe that the tongues at Corinth were also "ecstatic utterances." Leaving aside the question of the nature of "tongues" at Corinth, Furneaux claims the original (and historical) event involved "ecstatic utterances." Luke later redacted the event into a language miracle. Lisdemann also sees this redaction by Luke:

If we regard "other" (hererais) as redactional, then a language miracle would be speaking in tongues, i.e., glossalalia, which we know from 1Cor. 14. In that case the tradition contained in vv. 1-4 (and v. 13?) reports an ecstatic experience in a house of a group of disciples, and it was Luke who would first have interpreted this tradition as a language miracle in order to prepare for the idea of world mission...distinction needs to be made between glossalalia (1-4) and language miracle (5-13) in the framework of the analysis of the tradition [41].

These scholars contend that a language miracle never occurred because the original event did not involve the speaking of languages. If we assume that the tongues of Acts 2 and 1Corinthians 12-14 are of an identical nature (i.e., ecstatic utterances) and that Luke redacted the Acts 2 narrative, then the conclusion that the "tongues" were ecstatic utterances is plausible. It should be noted, however, that the text of Acts (as it stands) must be ignored or circumvented in order for someone to subscribe to the ecstatic utterances position. The difficulty with the ecstatic utterance view is that the text of Acts 2 clearly presents the "other tongues" as the native languages of the crowd.

A Hearing Miracle
Other scholars, desiring to retain the language miracle idea, have suggested variations that shift the focus to a hearing miracle. Perhaps the disciples were engaging in ecstatic utterances, which the Holy Spirit converted into the native languages of the Acts 2 crowd. The problem inherent in this proposal, a problem also present in the traditional language miracle view, is the assumption that the speakers (the disciples) could not speak the native languages of the crowd without divine enablement. As we have already seen, this assumption is without historical support. The speakers and hearers shared the same native languages (Aramaic and Greek).

Still other scholars suggest that the speakers were speaking their own languages, Aramaic and Greek, which the Holy Spirit transformed into the native languages of the hearers. Again, this suggestion ignores the fact that the speakers and hearers spoke the same languages. Put another way, if the speakers were speaking in Aramaic and Greek, they would have been speaking in the native languages of the crowd.

An Impasse
With all these suggestions we are left at an impasse. If the text is taken seriously (i.e., the native languages of the hearers were spoken by the disciples), all versions of the ecstatic utterances position should be rejected. If the language situation of first-century Judeans is taken seriously (i.e., the Judeans present in Acts 2 spoke Aramaic or Greek as their native languages), then the language miracle idea should be rejected. I propose that both the text and the language situation be taken seriously and an additional element be added. This additional factor, though regularly overlooked by most scholars, yields a better explanation for the "other tongues" of Acts 2.

We already have the parameters of this alternative if we take the text and language situation of first-century Judeans seriously. From the text we know that the "other tongues" were human languages. We also know that these languages were the native languages of the Jewish crowd that had gathered for the feast of Pentecost. Historical investigation leads us to conclude that the native languages of first-century Judeans (whether Palestinian or Diaspora) would have been Aramaic or Greek. This means that the disciples, when speaking in "other tongues," must have been speaking in Aramaic and Greek.

Two critical questions result from this reasoning. First, why would Luke describe the Aramaic and Greek languages (languages familiar to the disciples/speakers) as "other tongues"? Other than what language? Second, why would the crowd react with amazement (2:6-12) and ridicule (2:13) when they heard the speakers proclaiming in Aramaic and Greek (languages the disciples already knew)?

Proponents of the language miracle and ecstatic utterances interpretations ordinanly do not ask these questions. This is true because the logic of their presuppositions precludes these questions. The logic of the language miracle view leads one to believe that the "other tongues" could not have been Aramaic or Greek (languages the speakers already knew). If the "other tongues" could not have been Aramaic or Greek, then questions will never arise about whether Aramaic and Greek could be called "other tongues" and cause amazement and ridicule. The logic of the ecstatic utterance view leads one to believe that the original "tongues" were not languages. If this is true, then any questions regarding the speaking of Aramaic and Greek (which are languages) becomes irrelevant.

The Overlooked Factor: The Place of Hebrew in Jewish Culture
While most scholars are well aware of the dominance of Aramaic and Greek among first-century Judeans, few consider the function of Hebrew in Judean culture and its impact on the interpretation of Acts 2. Aramaic and Greek dominated as native languages of the Judeans; yet Hebrew was retained by the Judean people for a specific purpose. Jewish scholar Mortecai M. Kaplan describes the emerging role of the Hebrew language in Judean culture:

Despite the wishes of the Jewish zealots, Hebrew was unable to hold its own against Aramaic which, prior to the Greek conquest, seems to have become the official language of the entire western half of the Persian empire At that time there began a unique procedure which has characterized Judaism ever since, that of retaining Hebrew as the language of worship, of the elementary school and the bet ha-midrash, while developing the foreign vernacular into a Jewish dialect for use in the home and in the street. When the competition of other languages was too strong to be withstood, Hebrew did not succumb, but retired to the inner sanctuaries or Jewish life, where it continued not as the esoteric language of a few pedants. but as the medium in which the most vital interests of the people found expression [192].

According to Kaplan, Hebrew was retained as "the language of worship," in contrast to the "foreign vernacular" used "in the home and in the street." Hebrew had declined as the native language of the Judeans but continued to serve as the religious language of Judaism. Philip Birnbaum describes Judean feelings about Hebrew:

The Mishnah refers to the Hebrew language as leshon ha-kodesh--the holy tongue--to distinguish it from the Aramaic vernacular or other "secular tongues" spoken by the Jewish people. . Others have affirmed that Hebrew is God's language in which he gave us the Torah. It was the Hebrew language in which the prophets expressed their lofty ideas and our fathers breathed forth their sufferings and joys [316].

Geoffrey Wigdoer's Encyclopedia of Judaism under the Hebrew language entry reads: "A Semitic language (ivit) traditionally described as 'the Holy Tongue' (leshon ha-kodesh)....The Holy Tongue was the usual designation for Hebrew, and it was even seen as the language of the angels (Hag. 16a)" (330-31).

Throughout their history, Judeans have differentiated between Hebrew, the "Holy Tongue" (leshon ha-kodesh), and other languages (including Aramaic and Greek). Acts 2 is a thoroughly Judean setting; so we should attempt to view the meaning of the phrase "other tongues" from a Judean perspective.

Recall that in the Old Testament the Hebrew language is contrasted with the unintelligible languages of foreign invaders. The Hebrew people are warned that if they are disobedient to the Lord, he will bring a nation which speaks "another language" (Is. 28:11), "whose language you do not know" (Jer. 5:15). This warning of judgment through a nation which speaks "another language" is first expressed in the cursings section of Deut. 28:45-50. Paul makes reference to this in 1Cor. 14:21 with the phrase "by other tongues [heteroglossais] and other lips." What should be noted is that in each case the contrast is between the unintelligible language of a foreign conqueror and Hebrew.

It is important to recognize that according to this Judean understanding, the phrase "other tongues" may connote languages "other than Hebrew." In this Judean understanding there is one Holy Tongue, Hebrew, and all other languages are profane languages.

The Diglossia Concept
Chaim Rabin observes that in multilingual environments one or more linguistic patterns are common:

The first is common bilingualism (or multilingualism) caused by the personal circumstances of the individual: a man may pick up the language of his neighbors, a merchant that of his suppliers or customers, in a mixed marriage both parents and children may correctly use both languages, etc. The second pattern is that of the lingua franca: people with different home languages living within a certain area use for intercommunication one and the same language, which may be one of the home-languages of their area or a language from outside [1007].

Although most scholars are aware of these two linguistic patterns, the third, described as follows by Rabin, is not as well known:

The third pattern has in recent times come to be called "diglossia"; in it the same community uses two different languages in its inner-communinty activities, their use being regulated by social conventions. In most cases, one language is spoken in ordinary everyday life by everybody, and the other is employed in formal speech, on formal occasions, in writing, in religious activities, and the like. We refer to the more formal language as the upper language of the diglossia, to the less formal one as the lower. Diglossia situations are extremely common. They exist in many European countries as between local dialect and standard educated language. In a diglossia, too, not everyone is able to handle the upper language. In most cases. it is imparted by some process of formal education [l008].

The term "diglossia" was first used in English by Charles Ferguson: "In its original use, the term applied to cases where both the upper and lower language belong to the same historical language, e.g., literary and colloquial Arabic" (Rabin: 1007). The concept has since been extended by other linguists to situations where two different languages make up the diglossia (Fishman: 29-30).

Where a diglossia exists, different languages are used for very different purposes in the community. The upper (or H) language is reserved for special formal occasions, and the lower (or L) language is used in everyday life.

Ferguson (325-40) used nine categories to describe diglossia situations. First, as to the function of the language in the community: "One of the most important features of a diglossia is the specialization of function for H and L. In one set of situations only H is appropriate and in another only L" (328). Since both languages have very specific functions, "The importance of using the right variety in the right situation can hardly be overestimated. An outsider who learns to speak fluent, accurate L and then uses it in a formal speech is an object of ridicule" (329).

Second, there is a distinction in prestige between the "higher" and "lower" languages:

In all defining languages the speakers regard H as superior to L in a number of respects....Even where the feeling of the reality and superiority of H is not so strong, there is usually a belief that H is somehow more beautiful, more logical, better able to express important thoughts and the like. And this belief is held by speakers whose command of H is quite limited. To those Americans who would like to evaluate speech in terms or effectiveness at communication it comes as a shock to discover that many speakers of a language involved in diglossia characteristically prefer to hear a political speech or an expository lecture or a recitation of poetry in H even though it may be less intelligible to them than it would be in L. In some cases the superiority of H is connected with religion [32O-32].

Ferguson noted that diglossias usually involve strong loyalty to the H language. Proponents of the superiority of the H language use the following kinds of arguments:

H must be adopted because it connects the community with its glorious past or with the world community and because it is a unifying factor as opposed to the divisive nature of the L dialects. In addition to these two fundamentally sound arguments there are usually pleas based on the beliefs of the community in the superiority of H that it is more beautiful, more expressive, more logical, that it has divine sanction, or whatever their specific beliefs may be [338-39].

First-century Judeans, who believed that Hebrew was the "Holy Tongue," would have used these kinds of argument in support of Hebrew as the 'Holy Tongue."

Third, there is a literary heritage connected to the H language: "In every one of the defining languages there is a sizable body of written literature in H which is held in high esteem by the speech community, and contemporary literary production in H by members of the community is felt to be a part of this otherwise existing literature" (330). The Torah written in Hebrew has always been highly revered by the Judeans and their Jewish successors.

Fourth, there is the method of acquiring particular languages:

L is invariably Iearned by children in what may be regarded as the "normal" way of learning one's mother tongue. H may be heard by children from time to time, but the actual learning of H is chiefly accomplished by means of formal education, whether this be traditional Qur'anic schools, modern government schools, or private tutors. This method in acquisition is very important. The speaker is at home in L to a degree he almost never achieves in H [332].

This is precisely where the Diaspora Judean found himself in regards to his familiarity with Hebrew. He was quite at home with his mother tongue, Aramaic or Greek, and Hebrew was reserved primarily for the more educated.

Religious Diglossias
William A. Stewart says that it is normal for religions to have particular languages for religious expression: "Classical Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and Sanskrit are the religious languages of Moslems. Jews, Roman Catholics, and Hindus respectively" (545). The major religious diglossias appear thus:

Religion H Language L Language
Islam Quaranic Arabic other than Arabic
Judaism Hebrew Aramaic/Greek/etc.
Christianity Latin Germanic/French/etc.
Hinduism Sanskrit other than Sanskrit

The best known religious diglossia is probably the diglossia present in Roman Catholicism. The religious--and scholarly--language of Catholicism for centuries was Latin. Latin served as the H language of the diglossia, while German, French, etc., were the L languages. William Tyndale was killed for violating the ecclesiastical diglossia present in England.

Charles W Carter, though he does not make explicit use of the diglossia concept, nevertheless, in describing the Judean crowd of Acts 2, describes both the Jewish and the Muslim diglossias:

The objection that the "multitudes" of the dispersion would not have come to the Feast of Pentecost had they not known they would get much from a one-language observance can hardly be sustained. First, it was expected, if not actually legally required, of every Israelite to attend these feasts at Jerusalem and thus appear before the Lord, if such was within his ability. Second, religious worship is a greater influence on men than religious language, important as is the latter. Third, in like manner every faithful Moslem is required once in his lifetime, if at all possible, to make the Pilgrimage to Mecca (the Haj), and longs to do so....Certainly, a vast percentage do not understand intelligibly the Arabic language, even though they may have memorized sections of the Koran. And even a greater number have no knowledge of the Arabic language used in the religious services at Mecca [43].

Besides maintaining that the Feast of Pentecost involved "a one-language observance" (the liturgy in Hebrew). Carter thus also refutes the argument that the Diaspora Judeans--who for the most part did not know Hebrew--would not "get much from a one-lanauage observance." He does so (1) by pointing out that Judeans were required to attend the feasts, (2) by claiming that the validity of religious worship experiences does not necessarily depend on the intelligibility of the language used, and (3) by paralleling the Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

Without using the term, Carter is clearly referring to one diglossia situation and using another diglossia situation to answer an objection. Hebrew as the "Holy Tongue," the religious language, was the language that the Diaspora Judeans didn't understand. Using the right language (i.e., the "Holy Tongue," Hebrew) for the liturgy at the feast was more important than intelligibility. Carter then refers to the Muslim diglossia, where the religious language was Arabic. Observe the parallels in the Judean and Muslim diglossias:

  Muslim Diglossia Judean Diglossia
1. Location Mecca Jerusalem
2. H Language Arabic Hebrew (leshon ha-kodesh)
3. L Language Languages other than Arabic Languages other than Hebrew
4. Intelligibility

Arabic = Low
other languages = High

Hebrew = Low
other languages = High

A Judean Diglossia Present in the First Century
Other scholars besides Carter, while not using the term diglossia, nevertheless have concluded that a Judean diglossia existed in the first century. Gustaf Dalman, discussing the persistence of Hebrew among the Judeans, stated:

Sure as it is that Aramaic was the common language of the Jews in the time of our Lord, it is also a fact that Hebrew did not entirely drop out of the life of the Jewish people. As the "holy tongue" (leshon ha-kodesh), "God's language" since the creation of the world, the language of Adam, of Abraham, of Joseph, and of the Law, Hebrew was still held to be the real language of Israel [27].

Dalman thus recognized that although Aramaic had superseded Hebrew as the common (L) language of the Judeans, the people continued to believe that Hebrew was the H language ("the real language of Israel").

Martin Hengel recognized that Hebrew was the H language, with Aramaic and Greek as the L languages: "While Aramaic was the vernacular of ordinary people, and Hebrew the sacred language of religious worship and of scribal discussion, Greek had largely become established as the linguistic medium for trade, commerce, and administration" (1989: 8).

Henri Daniel-Rops saw a parallel between the use of Hebrew in Judean culture and the use of Latin in Roman Catholicism:

But after the return from Babylon the old national language fell slowly into disuse, being ousted for everyday purposes [L language function] by another dialect [Aramaic]. And since at the same time this was just the time at which the groups of learned men of Ezra's day were setting down the Scriptures in writing, Hebrew becomes "the language of holiness," leshon ha-kodesh or leshon shakamim, "the language of the learned," exactly like Latin of our time. The Law was read in Hebrew in the synagogues; prayers were said in Hebrew, both privately and in the Temple. The doctors of the Law taught in Hebrew [305].

If a diglossia existed among first-century Judeans, we may have a major clue about the interpretation of the phrase other tongues in Acts 2:4. Among first-century Judeans the religious language, leshon ha-kodesh, Hebrew, was the language that both Palestinian and Diaspora Judeans expected to hear in the Temple liturgy during the feast of Pentecost.

Although some would suggest that the speaking in "other tongues" occurred at a private home somewhere in Jerusalem, the available evidence suggests that it occurred at or very near the Temple: (1) according to Acts 2:1 the events of Acts 2 occurred during or while the feast was being fulfilled; (2) where would a large crowd of "devout men" (2:5) be while the feast was in progress?; (3) Peter said that it was 9:00a.m. (2:15), which was one of two prime times of Temple prayer and worship (the other was 2:00 p.m.); (4) as Luke himself indicates, the early church met regularly at the Temple ("And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the Temple praising God"--Lk. 24:52-53 NASB); (5) within the Acts 2 narrative Luke reiterates the practice of the early church: ("And day by day continuing with one mind in the Temple"--2 :46 NASB); (6) the streets ofJerusalem were very narrow (as personal travel or pictures will attest) with little room for a crowd of thousands, whereas the location of the speaking must have been large enough to accommodate not only the 120 disciples of Jesus, but a crowd of thousands; (7) after Peter preached 3,000 were converted (2:41). Not all of the crowd was converted; so the crowd was probably much larger than 3,000. The most likely place for thousands of "devout men" to be gathered during the fulfillment of Pentecost would have been the Temple area.

Instead of leshon ha-kodesh, the disciples of Jesus, inspired by the Holy Spirit, began speaking in "other tongues" (i.e., languages other than Hebrew). The speakers spoke Aramaic and Greek, languages they knew, languages that were simultaneously the native languages of the crowd assembled in Acts 2.

The Holy Spirit Kept Giving Apophtheggesthai
It is seldom observed that the Greek text of Acts 2:4 does not say the speakers were given "other tongues" to speak. Rather, it says "They began to speak in other tongues as the Holy Spirit "was giving" (eididou) "utterance" (apophtheggesthai) to them." Eididou is the imperfect, signifying ongoing, continuing action in the past; the infinitive of the verb in question is apophtheggesthai. It refers to the kind of authoritative, weighty, important speech characteristic of a prophet or similarly inspired person. As Marshall points out, "it indicates a solemn, weighty, or oracular utterance" (357). The word occurs only three times in the New Testament: Acts 2:4,14; 26:25. In Acts 2:14 Peter stands up and speaks out to the crowd ("raised his voice and 'declared' [apophtheggzato] to them"). Peter is not given a new language in 2:14; instead, his speech is described as bold, authoritative, and inspired by the Spirit. In Acts 26:1-32 Paul gives his defense before Agrippa. Agrippa, while hearing Paul's defense, says in v. 24: "Paul. you are out of vour mind! Your great learning is driving you mad." Paul responds: "I am not out of my mind . . .but I 'utter' [apophtheggomai] words of sober truth." The emphasis is on Paul's manner of speaking.

Apophtheggomai refers, not to the content of the speech, but to "the manner of speaking." In each instance, the person's speech is bold, authoritative, and inspired. Acts 2:4 could be translated: "They began to speak in other languages [than Hebrew] as the Spirit kept giving bold, authoritative, inspired speech to them." This meaning of apophtheggomai ties in well with Peter's answer to the charge of drunkenness.

First, Peter says it's too early for the speakers to be drunk. Second, he cites the prophecy of Joel, which indicates a time would come when the Spirit would be poured out on God's people irrespective of their age, gender, or social class. Ordinary people would have extraordinary experiences of the Spirit. Peter adds (v.18) an additional phrase (probably for emphasis) not present in Joel: "and they shall prophesy." In other words, the Holy Spirit would come upon ordinary people and they would speak out (i.e., prophesy) with bold, authoritative, inspired speech. Some may object that by denying the language miracle interpretation the miraculous is being denied in Acts 2. This is not true because the prophesying by the 120 disciples of Jesus is inspired speech.

Jesus had predicted that the coming of the Holy Spirit would result in ordinary people (the disciples ofJesus) speaking out powerfully (Lk 24:45-49; Acts l:4-8) under the influence of the Spirit. The bold, authoritative speech by ordinary people (predicted by Jesus) begins in Acts 2 and continues throughout the book of Acts.

The Judean leaders in Jerusalem were amazed at the boldness of the disciples: "Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus" (Acts 4:13 NRSV). The Judean leaders commanded the disciples not to speak in the name of Jesus any more. After further threats, the apostles were released and joined their companions.

The early church gathered and prayed: "And grant to your servants to speak your word with boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus" (Acts 4:29-30 NRSV). The result is a work of the Spirit strikingly parallel to the events of Acts 2: "When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness" (v 31). Note the sequence and elements involved in both Acts 2 and 4:


Acts 2:1-4

Acts 4:31

1. Disciples gather together (2:1)
1. Disciples gather together
2. Supernatural phenomena: "wind" and "fire" (2:2-3)
 2. Supernatural phenomena: "place was shaken"
3. All of the disciples filled with the Spirit
3. All of the disciples filled with the Spirit
4. as the Spirit was giving them utterance (apophthegges thai)
4. and spoke the word of God with boldness (metaparresias)

Bold Witness in "Other Tongues"
When a Gentile interprets the phrase "other tongues" in Acts 2:4, the phrase is usually interpreted to mean "languages other than what they normally spoke." This interpretation, however; is contradicted by the language situation of first century Judeans, where both the speakers of the "other tongues" and the hearers of the "other tongues" shared the same native languages (Aramaic and Greek). If we approach the phrase from a Judean perspective, the phrase may be interpreted to mean "languages other than Hebrew."

The crowd (the holy people of God/"devout men" v 5) had gathered in Palestine (the holy land) in Jerusalem (the holy city), at the Temple (the holiest place on earth), expecting trained priests (the holy men) to be conducting the liturgy in Hebrew (leshon ha-kodesh) on a holy day. Instead, the disciples of Jesus began to prophesy in "other tongues" with a boldness and authority given by the Holy Spirit. Other than what tongue? In this thoroughly Judean context, the place where a Judean diglossia would most likely exist, a reasonable conclusion is "other than Hebrew" (the "Holy Tongue")

Emil Schurer said of the use of Hebrew at this time: "Even on the basis of the evidence available prior to the archaeological finds of this century, a limited survival of Hebrew was admitted, but it was confined to the sphere of worship in the Temple...the leshon ha-kodesh was primarily the language used in the sanctuary"(10). M. H. Segal expressed shock that someone would suggest that a language other than Hebrew would be used for the Temple liturgy:

The view has also been expressed that the usual language in the Temple was Aramaic, and that it was only in the last few years of its existence that the Pharisees replaced Aramaic in the Temple by MH [Mishnaic Hebrew]. This view is based chiefly on the report that on two occasions High Priests heard in the Temple Bath Qol speaking Aramaic. But surely the evidence of such an isolated legendary report cannot outweigh the evidence or innumerable passages in MH literature which prove that the Temple ritual was carried out in MH...it is incredible that in the Temple of all places, with all its reverence for tradition, Hebrew would have been banished in favor of a new and un-Jewish tongue. Hebrew has remained the exclusive language of the Synagogue to this very day. Even if we had not the evidence of Rabbinic tradition, we should conclude that such was also the case in the ancient Temple [18].

For Judean people to call Hebrew leshon ha-kodesh is to designate it as sacred. Bruce J. Malina defines the sacred as "that which is set apart to or for some person. It includes persons, places, things, and times that are symbolized or filled with some sort of set-apartness which we and others recognize. The sacred is what is mine as opposed to what is yours or theirs" [124].

Aramaic and Greek had replaced Hebrew as the native languages for most first-century Judeans. Hebrew was retained, however as the sacred or religious language, in contrast to which Aramaic, Greek, etc., were the languages of everyday life.

The Jewish crowd expected to be hearing the priests conducting the liturgy in leshon ha-kodesh, Hebrew, the Temple language, the H language. They had this expectation in spite of the fact that leshon ha-kodesh was unintelligible for most of them at that time. Nevertheless, it was the cultural expectation of the entire crowd. They were not expecting to hear ordinary people boldly prophesying in the L languages (Aramaic and Greek) in this situation.

When the disciples began prophesying in the profane "other tongues" (the native tongues of the crowd) with a boldness and authority given by the Spirit (apophtheggesthai), some reacted in amazement (2:6-12), while others, angered by the violation of the diglossia, ridiculed the disciples as drunks (2:13). Drunkenness does not impart the ability to speak unlearned languages; it decreases verbal ability and frequently causes speech to become slurred. On the other hand, inebriated persons usually lose their inhibitions. People in an inebriated state engage in behavior they would not dream of doing while sober. Only an inebriated person would be so uninhibited as to ignore the sacred/profane distinction inherent in the Jewish diglossia. Peter answered the charge of drunkenness by citing the prophecy of Joel: the time had come when ordinary people would receive the Spirit and prophesy about Jesus with a boldness, authority, and inspiration given by the same Spirit. Luke describes the commencement of the Spirit-empowered witness of the early church--a witness that violated Judean expectations and norms connected to the Judean diglossia.

The first-century Judean diglossia and its application to Acts 2 may be seen in the following diagram:


H Language
L language
Sacred tongue
Profane tongue
Religious language
Everyday language
Aramaic/Greek, etc.


Sometimes approaching a biblical narrative is like being in a foreign land among strangers. Their actions, their language, everything they do seems strange. In short, they are a total mystery. This is analogous to the mystery of what "other tongues" meant in Acts 2.

To the twentieth-century American, the narrative in Acts 2 appears to be a description of a language miracle. From this perspective, what else could "other tongues" mean? Others, aware of Hellenistic settings where ecstatic utterance were routinely practiced, would guess that other tongues refers to disciples being filled with joy, engaging in ecstatic utterances.

Scripture says that "with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). God could have produced a language miracle in Acts 2. He also could have produced so much joy in his disciples that they broke forth in ecstatic praise. The question is not, "What is possible with God?" The question is, "What do the Scriptures mean, or what happened when the disciples spoke in 'other tongues'?"

Examination of the text alone cannot settle this mystery. The text does not define what other tongues meant, nor does the text explain the language situation of first-century Judeans. Without this definition or explanation, several questions have to be answered in order to resolve the mystery. What were the language capacities of the Jewish people at this time? What would the phrase "other tongues" mean to persons living in the first century? The answers to these questions provide the necessary background to understand the context of the narrative in Acts 2.

All biblical scholars agree that biblical texts have contexts. An enhanced understanding of the context aids in illuminating the meaning of the text. When this text is carefully examined in light of the Judean cultural context, a fascinating language differentiation emerges: leshon ha-kodesh. This is the premise that one language is more holy, better suited for religious expression, than all other languages. In the minds of Judeans and many of their Jewish descendants, Hebrew, the "Holy Tongue," is set apart from all other languages. What was the common, ordinary Ianguage of the earliest Judeans, evolved into leshon ha-kodesh, the sacred language.

Most Americans have not experienced, nor ever will experience, such an extreme differentiation of languages--a differentiation described by linguists as a diglossia. An example of where Americans could have had such an experience would have been attending a Roman Catholic Mass conducted exclusively in Latin. Others could have had the experience in travels to foriegn countries. It should not come as a surprise, at any rate, that most contemporary readers, confronted with the phrase "other tongues," would interpret it to mean "other than their ordinary languages." Most have never even heard of the term diglossia. They have no idea that the Judeans differentiated between leshon ha-kodesh, the "Holy Tongue," Hebrew, and all "other tongues".

To know what really happened in Acts 2, it is necessary to ask what this mysterious term "other tongues," meant in that Judean perspective. The answer to this question results in the surprising discovery of a diglossia in which Hebrew was leshon ha-kodesh. Now there is a meaning for "other tongues" that most would never have imagined. Clearly the phrase takes on a new but simple meaning--"other than Hebrew."

This possibility is intriguing in its simplicity and explanatory power. No longer is it necessary to invent meanings for the phrase "other tongues." It is no longer necessary to posit an earlier tradition behind the narrative in Acts 2. Nor is there need to be perplexed by the widespread use of the Aramaic and Greek languages as the native tongues of first-century Judeans (both Palestinian and Diaspora). This explanation provides a third alternative, one that fits what is known given the language context of the first century Judeans.

This explanation is equally and immediately applicable today. Most do not believe that they will speak languages they have never learned. They fear the loss of control involved in ecstatic utterances. This third alternative clearly implies that when the Holy Spirit comes upon ordinary people they become bold, effective witnesses for Jesus. The bold witnessing began in Acts 2, "turned the world upside down," and can still ignite hearts today. This work of the Spirit is desperately needed by the church today.

Some of the most fruitful discoveries in biblical studies resulted from application of the social-science approach to exegesis. This article is an example of the usefulness of such an approach. It appears that the Judean diglossia explanation has been overlooked precisely because a social-science approach was not used in the exegesis of the "other tongues" phrase. The combined insights of linguists, historians, theologians, and experts in Judaica provides this third alternative, which merits further consideration. Perhaps this article will stimulate a reinterpretation of the narrative in Acts 2 and reaffirm the importance of a social-science approach to biblical exegesis.

Works Cited

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Robert Zerhusen, M.Div., Th.M., has training in systematic theology. His interests include the application of cultural anthropology and linguistics to New Testament studies. Currently working on a manuscript concerning tongues, Robert is the pastor of Chattsworth Lake Community Church in Chattsworth, California.